Heineken Cup: Toulon 51 - 28 Glasgow

VISITS to the south of France may never be the same again after a stunning Heineken Cup clash in the packed Stade Mayol that thrilled the crowd with ten tries.

Matt Giteau of Toulon races between Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar. Picture: Getty
Matt Giteau of Toulon races between Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar. Picture: Getty
Matt Giteau of Toulon races between Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar. Picture: Getty

Scorers: RC Toulon: Tries - D Armitage, Mermoz 2, Masoe, Giteau 2; Pens - Wilkinson, Michalak 2; Cons - Wilkinson 3, Giteau, Michalak 2. Glasgow: Tries - Van der Merwe 4, Matawalu, Gray; Cons - Jackson 4.

What started as a glorious sunny day on the Cote D’Azur, Scots and French people mingling, singing and celebrating a shared joy of rugby, quickly descended into a horribly painful lesson for Glasgow Warriors and their hardy tribe of supporters.

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Gregor Townsend’s side finished last season strongly and started this one with an unprecedented five straight league wins, so have arguably never opened a European campaign more buoyant.

But this was no ordinary start to the Heineken Cup. Glasgow were handed an opening tie away to the Heineken Cup champions, a world select squad captained by Jonny Wilkinson and built by multi- millionaire Toulonnais Mourad Boudjellal at a cost of around £20m a year. Al Kellock and 19-year-old Jonny Gray were up against veteran World Cup winners Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, not just any old Bok and All Black, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Johann van Niekerk and Chris Masoe showed their spurs as arguably the best back row in world rugby and Michael Claassens, Wilkinson and Matt Giteau pulled the strings behind the dominant pack.

With Delon Armitage coming onto the ball at pace from full-back, Fijian and Samoan speed and guile on the wings in Josua Tuivosa and David Smith, and the clever French centre Maxime Mermoz injecting pace and fluency to every attack, this was as one-sided a match as any Scottish supporter will have witnessed.

Toulon scored the opening points through Wilkinson after three minutes, the first try through Armitage after just ten and seemed intent on matching the clock with points as they ran in four tries through Mermoz (2) and Masoe before half-time, the first scores coming from sublime attacking of space and off-loading and the latter from a lineout drive.

Ironically, Glasgow had actually ‘scored’ first. Niko Matawalu hacked downfield from a disrupted Toulon attack and his pace took him clear to dive on the bouncing ball, but, using the new rules of television match official support anywhere on the field, referee Greg Garner referred it upstairs and a knock-on was spotted.

And then the game turned, somewhat incredibly, with the Warriors going on to ‘win’ the second half 28-17. The momentum never swung sufficiently for Glasgow to ever look like they might come back and win the match, but, inspired by the immense work-rate of Chris Fusaro, the ball-carrying of Josh Strauss and eagerness of Mark Bennett and DTH van der Merwe, they ran in four tries in 24 minutes after the interval to secure a bonus point reward for never giving up.

The game, however, was decided in the opening 25 minutes, Toulon having racked up a 24-0 lead in that time with an intensity, ambition and level of skill that Glasgow simply had no answer to. However, the Warriors did not help themselves. They were beaten at the scrum, lineout and the breakdown, which allowed Toulon to build momentum, the home front five providing the grunt and the back row eating up yards around the park.

The Warriors’ defensive line-speed and accuracy was not good enough to stem the tide and, once on the front foot, Toulon have a back line of attackers few can live with.

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As Glasgow strived for a toe-hold in the game they were guilty of forcing plays and making errors, which the hosts eagerly snapped up and turned into points. It actually could have been more than 34 at half-time but for dogged Glasgow defence.

Glasgow replaced Henry Pyrgos at half-time with Matawalu and sent on DTH van der Merwe, and he produced an instant riposte, finishing off an attack launched by Mark Bennett’s running and taken on by McGuigan, and holding off Toulon replacement Danie Rossouw to go in under the crossbar with less than two minutes on the clock.

Matawalu then made a great break, but lost his footing once into the Toulon 22, and normal service seemed to be resumed when Giteau sliced through the Warriors defence inside the 22 to go over nine minutes into the second half, Michalak converting, to restore their 34-point lead.

But Jackson then stunned the Toulon defence with a break on halfway and the stand-off showed good awareness to off-load to Matawalu a few metres out for a surprisingly easy try. Jackson converted and with 26 minutes still to go it raised hopes of the Warriors salvaging a bonus point, from four tries, not by finishing within seven points.

In fairness, Toulon’s intensity had dropped significantly as they looked to entertain the crowd, but Glasgow took advantage to score again, this time Gray diving over after good play by Tommy Seymour and Ryan Grant.

Glasgow did score a fourth try, van der Merwe slicing through to the posts after 62 minutes.

That unnerved the Toulon support, who began to boo the team, Michalak kicked the next penalty for goal and Giteau responded with a sixth Toulon try, after picking up a loose ball and running a mazy line through a bedraggled Warriors defence.

He was duly announced as ‘Man of the Match’, but the rapturous applause from the Toulonnais which met the substitutions of Glasgow back rows Fusaro and Strauss, who were, like many of their teammates, out on their feet, was an indication of the respect the Scots had clawed back.

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Little was expected of Glasgow here but they emerge with a curious blend of bitter disappointment and morale lift from the four-try finish.

Analysis of this game may actually provide little more in the way of understanding other than a potent reminder of what occurs on a trip to the playground of Europe’s rugby elite when one arrives late for kick-off.

RC Toulon: D Armitage; J Tuisova, M Mermoz, M Giteau, D Smith; J Wilkinson (capt), M Claassens; E Felsina, B Noirot, M Castrogiovanni, B Botha, A Williams, J-F Lobbe, J van Niekerk, C Masoe. Subs: F Michalak for Wilkinson 28mins, D Rossouw for Botha 40, D Mitchell for Claassens 43, C Hayman for 50, X Chiocci for Felsina 57, S Armitage for van Niekerk 60, J Smith for Masoe, Castrogiovanni for Noirot, both 72.

Glasgow: S Maitland; T Seymour, M Bennett, A Dunbar, N Matawalu; R Jackson, H Pyrgos; R Grant, D Hall, J Welsh, J Gray, A Kellock (capt), T Swinson, C Fusaro, J Strauss. Subs: B McGuigan for Dunbar 32mins, DTH van der Merwe for Pyrgos 40mins, P MacArthur for Hall, E Kalman for Welsh, R Vernon for Swinson, all 52, J Eddie for Fusaro, M Low for Grant, both 66.